The human dimension is key to controlling proliferation of WMDs

By Elizabeth Turpen

Elizabeth Turpen

If a rogue state or terrorist organization needed insider support to acquire weapons-grade fissile materials or additional expertise to design a nuclear device, where should it send its headhunter? The most probable place to find applicable scientific talent for hire would be the former Soviet Union.  Described as a potential “Wal-Mart for terrorists” by one expert and “the greatest unmet threat to U.S. security” by a bipartisan U.S. Government commission in 2001, the legacies of the cold war arms race–nuclear, chemical and biological –continue to provide plenty of sleepless nights for those of us focused on the sheer magnitude of unsecured materials and underemployed experts that could be used to perpetrate catastrophic terrorism. Equally disturbing is the consistent political rhetoric regarding the number one threat to U.S. security being at the “crossroads of technology and international terrorism” without the corresponding political will to effectively address the most plausible source. In addition, the proclivity to favor high-tech fixes over addressing the enduring human dimension of the problem remains an outstanding liability for U.S. programs.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, roughly 20,000 weapons and stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium for an additional 40,000 weapons, as well as an estimated 40,000 tons of chemical weapons and a robust biological capability, were spread over what would rapidly evolve into 15 sovereign states spanning eleven time zones. Moreover, tens of thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians that comprised the backbone of the Soviets’ unconventional weapons programs went from relative riches as an elite corps of patriots to highly skilled excess capacity residing in bloated weapons complexes throughout the region. In response to the rapidly evolving crisis, Congress passed the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Act.  Colloquially known as Nunn-Lugar after its authors former Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA) and Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), CTR provided Defense Department funding and expertise to: 1) consolidate and secure weapons of mass destruction in safe areas; 2) inventory and account for these weapons; 3) provide safe handling and safe disposition of these weapons as called for by arms control agreements; and 4) offer assistance in finding gainful employment for thousands of former Soviet scientists with expert knowledge of weapons of mass destruction or their delivery systems. 

The early momentum created by this effort laid the foundation for a broad array of programs spawned by other U.S. agencies, especially the Energy and State Departments, and, in some cases, pursued multilaterally by U.S. allies. In 1996, legislative action in the form of the so-called Nunn-Lugar-Domenici bill explicitly recognized the terrorist threat and expanded and enhanced threat reduction activities. At the 2002 Kananaskis Summit, other members of the G-8 committed themselves to match the United States’ commitment to CTR totaling $10 billion over ten years, an agreement initially dubbed “10 plus 10 over 10.” More recently, Congress authorized CTR activities to extend beyond the territory of the former Soviet Union (FSU). In over a dozen years of evolution and roughly $12 billion in U.S. security investments, these efforts can lay claim to the following achievements: deactivation of over 6,900 warheads, including the entire arsenals from the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine; destruction of more than 2,300 delivery systems; elimination of over 290 metric tons of highly enriched uranium; enhancements to security in transport and storage as well as accountability for both weapons and weapons materials; and engagement of approximately 71,000 scientists in civilian research.

While the full roster of accomplishments is impressive, particularly in light of the lack of focused political commitment and relatively minuscule proportion of U.S. security investments to achieve progress, it remains wholly inadequate. The U.S. Government has been whittling away at the risks emanating from the cold war legacy for fifteen years, and depending on what aspect of the threat one is talking about and what metric for progress one applies, we are still only about half way there. Why the slow pace to address the most obvious source of proliferation? Certainly sufficient blame might be laid at the feet of fickle host governments, particularly in Russia. But a significant proportion of fault remains with the United States. The maverick, innovative approaches in the early years of threat reduction that yielded rapid progress have long since given way to turf battles between agencies, insufficient high-level attention to lay the foundation for more intensive and expeditious cooperation, and congressional and bureaucratic propensities for muddling through, despite the continued risk of loose materials and unemployed weaponeers.

In-depth research regarding lessons learned and possibilities to improve these nonproliferation efforts gives rise to the following conclusions: First, “Cooperative Threat Reduction” is more than a group of programs to address supply-side concerns in the proliferation equation. If applied appropriately, Cooperative Threat Reduction can also address the demand-side aspects of the equation. This is evidenced by the decisions on the part of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus to forego nuclear weapons state status–respectively the third, fifth and eighth largest nuclear weapons states upon independence–as a result of focused U.S. diplomatic efforts and promises of assistance. Second, without White House attention to getting the job done, these endeavors can fall prey to pernicious bureaucratic behavior and a dysfunctional interagency process. Third, and most importantly, whereas weapons can be dismantled and materials controlled, the people cannot. Instead of approaching the human dimension as a threat to be contained, it should be incorporated as part of the strategy to address the demand-side of the equation. In this vein, U.S. industry and academe should be brought along as partners to achieve sustainable rollback of WMD capabilities. Each of these lessons is part of a comprehensive approach that should be applied to future iterations of threat reduction efforts, whether those opportunities arise with respect to North Korea, Iran or other states with the scientific capabilities to achieve nuclear status.

Despite global public opinion polls regarding declining U.S. popularity, America’s scientific and business acumen is respected and coveted worldwide. This tool in our foreign policy approach to reversing the proliferation tide is not being used effectively. Never mind that oftentimes industry is leagues ahead of federally-funded research and development efforts, especially in the most innovative or ethically complicated aspects of “high-tech,” and yet is regarded as an outsider or peripheral to government policies in the day-to-day discussions inside the DC Beltway. The U.S. Government has yet to grasp the key point–and this is relevant to the cold war legacy as well as to combating terrorism more generally–“it’s about the people, stupid.” Economic opportunity has a key role to play in potentially reversing “rogue” states’ proliferation calculations and offering opportunities to those thus far marginalized by globalization.
With respect to the enduring threat of WMD proliferation from the FSU, however, this lesson remains vital. We have consistently downgraded efforts to provide stable commercial opportunities to the scientific capacity–due to the long-term nature of such efforts and the fuzzy metrics which must be applied with respect to “conversion” of human capacity–in favor of the more easily quantifiable aspects of dismantling weapons and securing materials, despite the obvious issue that any progress made would be readily reversible without sustainable, civilian employment. In addition, with few exceptions, these efforts have only in retrospect tried to address the need for stable employment, not to mention the opportunity to address U.S. foreign policy objectives of economic development, integration into the global economy, and rule of law. Had we thought about the human dimension of proliferation as an opportunity rather than a risk and offered industry sufficient incentives to participate in creating sustainable commercial job opportunities in these fledging democracies, we would be measurably farther along in advancing our nonproliferation and many other vital national interests.

What has happened by accident in a handful of cases illustrates what is feasible by design. A high tech company based in Albuquerque, New Mexico works with a group of highly skilled specialists at the General Physics Institute in Moscow for different aspects of design and improvements to the company’s nuclear safeguards equipment. This same safeguards equipment is utilized by the Department of Energy’s Materials Protection, Control and Accounting (MPC&A) program to contain and account for weapons-grade materials in the FSU. Collaboration between a California biotech company and a team of former biological weapons scientists has yielded a new vaccine for treatment of Hepatitis C, an increasing public health threat in Russia and globally. In an early iteration of programs, the Defense Department contracted a New York company to convert a factory producing nuclear-tipped torpedoes in Kazakhstan to civilian production. This $3 million investment resulted in a cryogenic vessel production facility to service the rapidly growing oil and gas industry in the region. In addition to providing sustainable employment to the lion’s share of workers at the former torpedo factory, this facility later became the primary supplier of equipment for the cylinders requisite to DOE’s efforts to secure plutonium bearing fuel assemblies in Kazakhstan upon closure of a breeder reactor. Moreover, this case provides a concrete example of the “secondary” benefits of such efforts with respect to achieving other foreign policy objectives in the course of addressing the possible risk of know-how proliferation. Beyond sustainable employment and providing products needed by a Department of Energy nonproliferation program, the transfer of business management skills, training in quality assurance and quality control, and the positive economic impact on the region, this factory’s management became a vociferous agitator for the rule of law in an otherwise hostile business environment. 

In the Stimson Center’s survey of the U.S. Government programs geared toward addressing the know-how proliferation threat, two shining examples not left to serendipity do exist. First, the Defense Department’s Biological Threat Reduction Program has teamed with the Centers for Disease Control to leverage the scientific capacity of former biological weapons scientists in Central Asia and the South Caucasus to build a network for infectious disease surveillance across the region. Second, modeled after a program created in the mid 1990s to promote economic diversification among the DoE laboratory complex, the Law Enforcement Targeted Initiative (LETI) is a partnership to promote development of civilian law enforcement technologies by former Soviet WMD institutes. Under this arrangement, law enforcement agencies, in Russia and beyond, are the customers of Russian institutes R&D services. 

A train is bearing down on the threat reduction activities funded by the United States. Policymakers at the agencies and many members of Congress are looking for an “exit strategy” from threat reduction engagement in the region. This is particularly true as Russia flaunts its petrodollar wealth, and the escalating costs for the war in Iraq begin to squeeze all other aspects of our national security budget. Unfortunately, an exit strategy that does not ensure an indigenous capacity to sustain the measures that the U.S. has so painstakingly put into place may render fifteen years and the expenditure of billions of dollars moot. More frighteningly, a premature exit greatly increases the risk of WMD terrorism through the seepage of materials or know-how to any well-endowed source willing to bid. 

As Sam Nunn repeatedly puts it: “We’re in a race between cooperation and catastrophe, and the threats are outrunning our response.” Our response to the most likely source of materials or know-how that could contribute to catastrophic terrorism has been dangerously inadequate. Addressing the human dimension of the threat is not only the lynchpin to sustainability of these efforts, but represents underexploited potential to achieve a whole host of U.S. foreign policy interests. Moreover, an opportunity exists to address public health, energy, environmental and nonproliferation needs through more efficient leveraging of the scientific and technical talent in the region of the former Soviet Union. Through innovative engagement of U.S. industry and academe as partners in achieving U.S. policy goals, not only can we better address proliferation challenges but also provide attractive incentives to induce a different calculation by states flirting with the WMD option and reduce the risks of know-how proliferation to the highest bidder. 

Elizabeth Turpen is a Senior Associate and co-director of the Cooperative Nonproliferation program at The Henry L. Stimson Center. She recently co-authored “Cooperative Nonproliferation: Getting Further, Faster,” an in-depth assessment of U.S. nonproliferation programs in the former Soviet Union.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff

April 2007 (Volume 16, Number 4)

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New Research in Particle, Nuclear and Astrophysics Featured at April Meeting
APS Panel Report Assesses Nuclear Waste Storage Issues
Four New Sites Added to Teacher Education Program
Named Lectureships Enhance March and April Meetings
Major Donation Launches New Math and Science Education Initiative
Initial Employment is Focus of AIP Report
Physicists Use Direct Line to Capitol Hill
Grave Concern About Earth Observing Satellites at Science Committee Hearing
Scientists and Engineers Get the Oscar for Improving Film Production
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Washington Dispatch
International News
Zero Gravity:The Lighter Side of Science
Profiles in Versatility
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